I didn’t lie to them. I didn’t. There wasn’t need to tell them everything. Simply that.
Zie curled into a miserable ball in the corner of the bunk. Davitts and Essenin had gone up on deck, either to watch or to assist as the ship got underway, but Zie was too exhausted and shaken still to leave his blanket nest. Of course the omissions were as bad as lying, but did it really matter now?He was finally safe. Essenin and Davitts were safe. All beyond the shadows’ reach. That mattered. Not the details.
Coward, coward, coward.
He pulled the covers over his head and drifted into a restless sleep, knowledge of his failings warring with relief and fueling chaotic, anxious dreams. He woke in a panic, unable to pin down where he was or why the room was moving. Ship. Cabin. You’re fine...everything’s fine.
Sunlight puddled on the cabin floor, so several hours had passed. While he probably could’ve slept for a week—now that he was unreachable, his body reminded him just how long he’d been surviving on as little sleep as possible—he wasn’t a passenger on this voyage.
Best to make an appearance, at least.
He pulled dry clothes from his pack, dressed, wrapped his ankle, and took his coat up on deck to brush off the salt since it had already dried. His boots… Zie sighed. Those were only normal edlak hide and he would most likely need to find some leather soap for them. Ah, well. Most of the sailors went barefoot in any case and it wasn’t cold enough for him to need boots on deck.
Foot claws carefully retracted so he didn’t leave gouges in the planks, Zie paced toward the mainmast for a better view of the ship. By the rail, Essenin helped another sailor tie off a heavy sail rope. Davitts disappeared down the hold ladder with large sacks hoisted over his shoulder. Zie’s mouth quirked a bit. The crew had wasted no time putting them to work.
Up on the deck with the ship’s wheel—whatever southerners called the ilna deck—Captain Unav stood with her spyglass and a complicated instrument that was most likely for navigation. For now, the wind filled the sails and the oars had been shipped, but Zie had learned enough about the southern seas to know sudden calms could flatten those sails at any time.
Captain Unav lowered her spyglass and spotted him. “Ah, you’ve survived, I see! Remembered that you work for me, then?”
“Yes, Captain.” Zie raised his voice, hating the rasp in it when he had to shout. “Quite fit, thank you.”
“Exactly what I like to hear.” Captain Unav turned to the sailor at the helm. “I’ll take the wheel, Hennel. Show our sail impeller his charges, if you’d be so kind.”
“Aye, Cap.” The sailor, an enormous human one, lumbered down the steps and took Zie in hand. Figuratively, thank goodness. One of Hennel’s hands could have crushed both of his with room to spare.
The names of the sails were unfamiliar and there were more of them than Zie felt were strictly necessary, but what did he know? The Golden Runner was a far larger ship than a sylvas ice cat or river schooner. He asked Hennel to run through them several times until he could repeat them back and the human clapped him on the shoulder in a show of approval that nearly knocked him over.
“Not much to you, but you’re a smart little mite,” Hennel boomed at him. “Worst comes, and you don’t recollect in a bad spot, we’ll point to the right ones, eh?”
“In a bad spot, that will do quite well.” Zie managed a smile for him that wasn’t all teeth. “Thank you, Hennel.”
Otherwise, there wasn’t much more for him to know. Stay out of the way and wait for the captain’s summons. He turned to find Essenin leaning with graceful nonchalance on the railing, watching him.
Essenin grinned. “I see you and your coat are up and about. Why does it still look perfect after being half-drowned? Is that magic?”
“Ah, no.” Zie nestled beside them along the rail and Essenin didn’t pull back. That was a good sign that they weren’t angry about the things Zie hadn’t told both of them. “It’s vurda hide. They’re teat animals like us, but spend most of their lives in the water. Much better than edlak for repelling weather and keeping out the cold.”
“You were just giving your coat a taste of home, then, when you took your little swim.” Essenin cocked their head and regarded Zie with narrowed eyes. “You can swim, can’t you?”
“Yes. I’m not the best, but I manage. The light spell...was difficult to hold.”
Essenin curled down to kiss Zie’s forehead. “Overtaxed yourself. It’s all right to say it.” They ran a finger down the arm of Zie’s coat. “Are the vurda normally blue?”
“No, they range from gray to white. The blue dye comes from Fisk-na clan…” Zie faltered and cleared his throat. “Came from. They had...the most exquisite dyes.”
His eyes were welling up again. Ridiculous eyes. He dashed the tears away with the cuff of his coat.
“I’m sorry.” Essenin wrapped an arm around him. “I’ll leave off asking cavalier questions about back home. Of course it upsets you.”
He turned to hide his face and his renewed tears against Essenin’s shirt. Oh my dear, lovely friend. If you only knew...
“I thought he was a wind worker.” Essenin took Davs’ coat when he handed it over, tucking it around a semi-conscious, shivering Zie.
Davs gave a one-shouldered shrug as he went back to rowing. “Well, he is. But some of your family has more than one talent, even if you only do water work.”
“Davs.” Essenin shot him a flat glare. “That’s wind and water. Those...well, they go together. That? Back there? A powerful light spell like that?”
“He’s not selak. He’s not human.” Davs glanced over his shoulder, presumably to judge how much farther to the ship. “Magic must be different for sylvas.”
Essenin chewed on their bottom lip to stop the rest of their skittering thoughts from falling out. I’m sure it is different. But I’ll still have a hundred and seven questions as soon as he can speak to us sensibly.
The launch scraped as Davs brought them alongside the Golden Runner, his arms trembling. Essenin took pity on his exhaustion, hailing the ship in a voice mother would’ve said stirred bones from the sea bottom. Not genteel at all, but it worked and within minutes, sailors had manned winches to bring the launch aboard. Essenin cringed when the solid thunk-thunk-thunk of sturdy boots hurried toward them across the deck.
“I don’t recall asking you to drown my new sail impeller,” Captain Unav snapped as she joined them at the rail.
Essenin offered her an apologetic smile. “Tiny mishap rowing out. Apparently sylvas small craft have different hull shapes. Balance isn’t quite the same.”
At least part of that was true. Sylvas boats were an odd shape. Davs gave them a hard side glance, but kept his mouth shut and concentrated on lifting Zie out of the boat. Truth was all well and good. Trying to explain what they’d just seen when they didn’t understand it themself? No. Such a hillside of no.
She snorted and shouldered past him. “He is alive, I trust?”
A short bout of coughing answered her, then Zie sketched a salute from the cradle of Davitts’ arms. “Reporting as requested, Captain. Do you need me now?”
“No. Thank the mother for that. The oarsmen will get us past the shoals and we should catch a good wind this morning.” Captain Unav shook her head, but her thunderous expression had calmed. “Go below. Rence will take you. Get warm and dry before you contract a lung ailment. I most likely won’t need you for a day or two.”
Ah, Rence. I remember her. Another half-selak like Essenin, the last time they’d seen her, she’d been just another sailor, a young rigging rat. Now, by the uniform, she was a junior officer, though her webbed feet were still bare. Essenin tried not to be jealous that she’d gotten fin-feet as part of her selak inheritance since at least he could wear all manner of boots.
She gestured to them to follow and hurried them off the deck, apparently too busy to indulge in normal selak greetings. Fine. The how’s-your-mother-aunt-cousins-and-so-on could go on for a bit, Essenin had to admit. At least their quarters would be a cabin rather than bunking belowdecks with the crew, and it was a nice one with two roomy bunks and a chest for each.
Rence hurried off without a word and Davs deposited his sylvas burden on the nearer bunk, his movements gentle, but his expression full of thunder.
“You have questions,” Zie murmured as he pulled his knees up under his chin.
“Several dozen of them, starting with what in all blue hells was that?” Davs waved his arms expansively, as close to losing his temper as Essenin had ever seen him. “But no. First--before the ship gets underway and it’s too bloody late—are those things going to attack the town?”
“No.” Zie pulled himself into an even smaller ball. “Truly. No. They have no interest in or some odd aversion to humans. The town is safe.”
Davs started pacing, which in the small cabin became a threat to Essenin’s feet. “No interest in humans? Why were they calling to me?”
“Were they?” Zie hid his face in his arms, shuddering violently. “As I understand it, you’re not entirely human.”
“That’s… All right. True.” Davs whirled and smacked the back of his hand against Essenin’s chest. “Were they calling you?”
“Not, hmm, calling. No.” Essenin moved Davs so they could reach Zie and coax him out of his dripping shirt. “There was a moment where I couldn’t move. Like my limbs were suddenly full of sand.”
“They did?” Zie’s words barely made it through chattering teeth.
“Davs. My love, my own.” Essenin squinted at him. “Either help me get him warm or go stomp around somewhere else.”
Grumbling, Davs worked to unlace Zie’s boots and between the two of them, they soon had him stripped, wrapped in blankets, and propped up between them for extra warmth. Essenin did hope the blue leather coat would be all right after its dip in salt water. Time will tell, I suppose, and not the important thing here. Focus.
When the violent shivers had calmed to an occasional shudder, Essenin nudged Zie. “So now tell us. Everything you can. And why you didn’t warn us.”
“I didn’t think… I had hoped…” Zie sighed and leaned his head on Essenin’s shoulder, maybe because Davs had yelled at him. “They should have been a few days behind me. So I thought. It takes them time to cross running water since they need an actual way across. They’ve become better at it, which is disturbing. I thought I’d never need to tell you. That we would be gone.”
Davs’ fists were clenched in his thighs. “That’s a pretty terrible excuse for the last bit. But still doesn’t explain a storm cursed thing. What the fuck was that? Those? Whatever it was.”
“They’re shadows.” Zie cringed when Davs pulled in a sharp breath. “Truly. I have no better word for them other than what they are. Living, hungry summoned shadows. They are what devastated the north country and they are what has hunted me since.”
“Summoned?” Essenin put the terrible pieces together. “It was magic that got away from someone?”
Zie gave another hard shudder. “Yes. They killed my family. Everyone in my compound. Everyone in all the compounds, as far as I know.”
“Your brother. Hest.” Davs put a hand on Zie’s thigh, his voice gentler now.
“Yes. I don’t know how to stop them. Slow them, yes. Temporarily confound them like I did tonight. But not how to unmake them.”
Essenin wrapped both arms around him. “I’m so sorry. What a terrible thing.” A few moments of rocking Zie made another thought resurface. “And you think you should be able to. Because you… I don’t understand it, but you can reach into more than one sort of magic.”
“Your southern magic is, ah, I beg your pardon, limited.” Zie shifted back on the bed so he could face them, his hands peeking out from his blanket nest to gesticulate. “We call it the disciplines, the paired sets of magic every sylvan child learns from an early age. A child might be able to access, for instance, air and vacuum as a paired discipline early in life and learn another later. They may only have one. In certain families, though… Certain families tend to breed mahk.”
Davs’ forehead crinkled. “The what now?”
“Someone who can access and possibly master all five disciplines.”
“And that’s you,” Essenin guessed. “And you managed to hold them off just enough to escape, but you couldn’t stop them.”
Zie nodded miserably, his eyes glinting with tears waiting to fall.
“I know you’re scared. And I know tonight was rough.” Davs shook him by the knee. “But I have to ask. Was the goal just to get away or was there a plan?”
“It’s difficult to plan when all you’re doing is running.” Zie heaved a shuddering breath and wiped at his eyes. “But they can’t follow me now. There are no bridges across the sea. I hope that they’ll pace the shoreline forever in a futile search for me, but it’s more likely they’ll return north to search for any survivors. I have nothing as grand as a plan. It’s merely a thought.”
Essenin rolled a hand. “Which is?”
“I hear there are sylvas compounds across the waves. If there is an older mahk, someone with more experience, maybe even someone who has met something like the shadows… Well. Probably an empty hope. But better than none.”
Davitts charged through the sand, supporting Zie on his bad side. The sylvas’ fear infected the air around him, his eyes showing white as he flicked panicked glances toward the trees.
It seemed obvious that Zie believed his pursuers had found him, but he wasn’t alone. Davitts pulled his broadaxe from the holster on his back, keeping an eye on the woods while Essenin kept them headed toward the boat. Archers were his greatest worry, but the moon shadows through the twisting branches would confuse aim to some extent.
Another fifty steps to the launch. If they could get it in the water, they’d be out of range of anyone in the trees. Almost there. The wind from the sea wasn’t fierce that evening. It’d be an easy row past the surf. The wind…
The branches swayed toward them. The wind couldn’t be blowing in both directions. Not naturally. It isn’t, because it isn’t wind. There was movement in the branches, too widespread, too diffuse to be archers in the trees. A spike of ice drove through Davitts’ spine. What in all hells is out there?
The three of them skidded to a stop at the launch’s stern. Zie whirled to face the trees, both hands held out at waist height. His palms began to glow.
“Get the boat launched,” he panted out. “Get it out in the water. Give me a safe place to run.”
Davitts clutched his axe haft in both hands and glanced over at Essenin, who shook their head and drew their cutlass, saying, “We won’t leave you alone with this.”
The brightness grew into balls of blinding white light in Zie’s hands and he screamed through clenched teeth before aiming a vicious kick at Essenin. “Launch the mother-cursed boat! You have no weapons for this, you idiots!”
They stared at Zie, open-mouthed, and as Davitts turned to argue, he caught definite movement in the branches—dark, twisted shapes. Hands with horribly elongated fingers reached out from the trees. Distorted faces with jaws and nostrils turned at impossible angles leered at him. They shifted, broke apart, reformed, and all the while hissed and whispered, words just out of hearing. Eyes blacker than the deepest pits snagged Davitts, beckoning him closer…
Zie gave another feline scream and stepped in front of him, preventing him from taking a step toward the woods. “Go! Now! Do as I say or we all die!”
The thought of Ess lying dead in the sand broke the spell. He tossed all their packs in the boat, grabbed Ess’s arm and spun them around. When Ess resisted, he shouted above the rising wind, “Magic, Ess! He knows what he’s doing!”
Both hands above his head now, Zie leaned into the unnatural storm, the creatures roiling and pacing at the edge of his light spell’s reach. With a strangled sob, Ess put their shoulder to the stern and helped Davitts shove the launch into the waves. As soon as the bottom cleared the sand, Davitts scrambled aboard and struggled to get the oars set with shaking hands. Ess flopped into the boat as soon as Davitts got untangled and heaved all his weight against the oars, pulling them past the surf in three strokes.
He stopped, Ess turned, and they both went still, eyes riveted to the scene on shore. Zie held fast, his light so bright now that Davitts had to put up a hand to shield his sight.
“How’s he going to reach us?” Ess clutched the sides of the boat, his body straining toward the beach. “He can’t get to us out here!”
Davitts shipped the oars and put what he hoped was a comforting hand on Ess’s shoulder. “Hold us here, love. Best you can. He wouldn’t have said it if he didn’t have a plan, right?”
“Right. Yes. Right.” Ess nodded vigorously and trailed a hand in the waves, their water magic humming in soft vibrations through the wood as they forced the boat to hold position against current and tide. “Stay little launch,” Ess whispered. “Stay, stay…”
On shore, the light expanded to surround Zie and even from a distance, the tension in his muscles was evident. He has to let the spell go. He’ll drain himself and collapse on the beach…
A roar cut off Davitts’ thoughts and Zie’s huge ball of light exploded outward into the trees. Terrible shrieks came from the trees as the shadow things scattered and shredded. Zie turned, limping in a weaving run toward the waves. At first, Davitts thought he would try to swim out to them, though it didn’t look like he had the strength to. But his boots hit the waves and didn’t sink. Zie kept running on top of them, his steps leaping from white foam cap to cap.
He’ll make it. He will. Almost there…
The light had dissipated, making it more difficult to see the beach, but Davitts could still make out the shadows rushing out of the forest, their hideous, twisting bodies and grasping fingers reaching out over the waves. Those tattered, twisted arms kept reaching, impossibly long, while Zie managed to keep only just two steps ahead. Finally, the shadows appeared to have reached their limit, shrieking and writhing their rage on the sand. Zie turned his head to check and tripped on the top of the next wave.
His eyes went wide in horror as he sank like a stone.
Ess’s shout was the only warning Davitt’s had before his half-selak lover dove over the side, leaving Davitts to scramble trying to keep the boat from capsizing. Ess was perfectly safe in the water. Everything would be fine. He kept telling his hammering heart that as he took up the oars again to hold the boat as steady as possible, straining to see any sign of them in the impenetrably dark water.
Nothing. Mother of storms, where are they? It’s been too long. Has it been too long?
Just as panic started to set in, Ess crested and rolled onto their back to kick toward the boat with a sodden bundle of black hair and flopping limbs in their arms. They heaved their burden over the side and Zie flopped onto the decking, coughing and trembling.
Essenin rolled back into the launch with considerably more grace and gathered Zie close, trying to shield him from the wind. Their eyes gathered Davitts in too, relief and shock mixed in equal parts in there. “Row, Davs. Get us out of here.”
No one had to tell him twice. Davitts rowed toward the mouth of the bay, toward the bulk of the Golden Runner waiting at anchor, hard enough that his shoulder joints screamed, but he didn’t care if he popped one out of the socket. Ess could put it back. He wanted lantern light and people and normal things.
“Are we safe?” Essenin asked when Zie had stopped heaving up his lungs.
“They can’t cross the water,” Zie whispered as he curled into a compact ball in Ess’s lap. “They can’t cross the water. Can’t.”
Suddenly, Zie’s desperation to put an entire sea between himself and his pursuers made all sorts of sense. Horrible, horrible sense.
The sun was rude enough to wake Zie the next morning by shining directly into his eyes, which made him sneeze. Then he froze. There was a warm body in the bed at his back. He couldn’t recall what bed.
Slowly, slowly. Piece it back together.
“You’re awake,” a sleepy-soft voice murmured against his shoulder.
The voice conjured a face. Essenin. Falling asleep in a cradle of strong arms. The room at the Blue Goblet.
You’re safe. It’s fine.
He rolled over to meet half-lidded dark eyes. “Good morning.”
“Morning.” Essenin smiled for him and stretched, letting the covers slide to their waist, but seduction was apparently not the goal. “Are you hungry? I’m starved.”
“Where’s your Davitts?”
“Our Davitts is one of those horrible morning people, up at the crack of dawn.” Essenin rubbed both hands over their face. “Something about a list of supplies.”
Zie considered that, drawing one-fingered circles around one of Essenin’s dark nipples. Hope was dangerous and stupid. This sort of hope ember flickering in his chest was even worse. “You’ve taken a job, then?”
“Not officially.” Essenin stopped Zie’s wandering hand and kissed the tip of his finger. “We’re going to take Captain Unav up on her offer. It’s not a lot of work for good pay, and I get out on the waves for a bit.”
Several responses occurred to him, among them, No, you can’t. It still might not be safe, and Is this to look after me? Because I don’t need anyone to. He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth for a moment, cowardice keeping those words inside. “I suppose it’s no hardship to be able to have you both a little longer.”
“We hoped you’d say that.” The gentle kindness in Essenin’s smile squeezed at Zie’s heart—so beautiful, he came close to believing everything would be all right.
Zie poked them in the ribs, making them squirm. “You two were talking while I slept.”
“A bit, perhaps. A smidge. You wouldn’t have woken if the inn collapsed.”
A braver person would’ve told them no. A braver person would’ve recoiled at the thought of these two bright souls putting themselves at risk for someone who didn’t in any way deserve it. But all Zie felt was relief over not being quite so alone.
Boots clattered on the stairs, followed by Davitts shouldering the door open to drop sacks and a stack of crates on the floor. “Are you two sea slugs still in bed?”
“Some of us are civilized and don’t get up with the chockas.” Essenin burrowed against Zie’s side, pretending to go back to sleep.
“Some of us are responsible people who know how much work goes into getting ready for a journey.”
The teasing flowed around Zie, warm and comfortable in the way of people who loved each other and knew each other well. There wasn’t any anger in it, no real annoyance. They each knew perfectly well how the other handled any given situation. Zie wasn’t sure he wanted to face how much it all strengthened the illusion of safety.
Essenin suddenly bounced upright as if they’d remembered something. They scooted up to lean against the headboard and cocked their head at Zie. “Who’s Hest?”
Just like that, the illusion ripped at the seams. Heart hammering, Zie edged away, panicking as he cast about desperately for his pants. Who are they really? Who did they speak to? What do they know? The words snarled out of him, “Why would you ask that?”
“Ess…” Davitts hissed a warning, but Essenin seemed determined.
“You cried out in your sleep. Just that one word.” Essenin spoke gently, as if Zie were a feral kit. “I thought it sounded like a name. Is that who’s hunting you? And why do you think this person can’t cross the water?”
Davitts smacked Essenin’s foot. “Mother of storms, Ess! Shut. Up.”
Oh. With an effort that didn’t do anything to calm his racing heart, Zie stopped edging away. “I see… I…” He shook his head and finally spotted his pants across the room on the floor. Stop panicking. It was a question, not an accusation. Stop. Stop. “No. No, it’s nothing like that. Hest was…”
He caught the change in both their expressions as they interpreted that was. Perceptive, the pair of them.
“You don’t have to tell us,” Davitts said, as he had the first night. “If this isn’t about who’s after you, it doesn’t concern us.”
His voice hitched and broke as Zie allowed himself to say it. “He was my brother. My…” He hesitated again, certain that brother didn’t even explain it halfway. “Have you ever even met any sylvas?”
Davitts came to sit at the foot of the bed, mouth tugged down in a concerned frown. Essenin held a hand out and didn’t answer until Zie had let his fingers settle on their palm. “Only in trader situations. Met, yes, but not ever gotten to know any.”
“All right.” Zie nodded, eyes squeezed shut. “Sylvas children are multiple births. Two to five, usually. A solitary baby is considered a tragedy. Birthmates are...close. More than close. They have connections that I don’t have the words in your language to describe. Hest… We were a creche of two.”
“You lost him. It was something terrible. I’m sorry.” Davitts gave his ankle a gentle shake. “Ess won’t ask anything else about it.”
Essenin made a noise that sounded like dissent, but they snapped their mouth shut and nodded, giving Zie’s fingers a squeeze.
The remainder of the day. Zie made certain to focus on what was immediately in front of him—the extra clothes Davitts had picked up for him along with an extra pair of boots, a pack and a few necessities for living outdoors. Not that they would be aboard a ship, but there was no predicting what would happen after.
Acute embarrassment skirmished with gratitude in Zie’s head over these gifts, not only freely given, but thoughtfully since Davitts had quietly taken measurements of his worn clothes. He kept waiting for the terrible reveal, for his new friends to suddenly show their bad intentions, but aside from Essenin being too nosy and Davitts being too reticent, nothing happened to tweak Zie’s paranoia.
The whole day of sorting and packing, snacking and snuggling, had a hazy golden glow to it, as if it were a dream of a day, a cocoon of wishful thinking. They had dinner in the room again and turned in before the sun had even set. They needed to be up in the dark of the morning to make Captain Unav’s deadline.
When they did rise in the chill hours before dawn with Essenin grumbling pitiably about being shoved out of the lovely warm bed, Zie found himself seized by a strange energy where his limbs felt lighter, his chest unburdened. He was...cheerful. Imagine that. They would be on the water soon, and there had been no sign, no whiff at all, that his pursuers were near.
He was going to get away. Finally. A laugh nearly escaped him to have desperation exchanged for hope.
Essenin wrapped his ankle tight—much better that morning with the swelling receding—and they set off at a brisk pace for the spit of beach outside the harbor where a launch would be dragged up on the sand, waiting for them. Davitts whistled softly as he walked, the light from his lantern bobbing with each stride. The cozy yellow light reminded Zie of the day before and he smiled, watching the lantern cut through the shadows.
From one breath to the next, all his cheer vanished. Cold swept up his back in dreadful certainty. The beach was in sight now, the launch a dark lump a few hundred yards away, but Zie’s eyes were drawn to the copse of trees that crowded up close to the beach. The trees. Shifting in a wind that defied the direction of the sea breeze. The trees, with their restless, skittering shadows.
“No. Not now,” Zie whispered. He grabbed his companions by their arms, his heart banging against his chest. “Don’t talk, no questions. Just run.”
It would take a bit for Davs to join them on the bed. Essenin knew him well enough that they could almost time it to the exact moment, and they loved their Davs for that, for the deliberate care he put into his actions, for the need to be certain others’ needs were met.
Also, he’s just a bit shy.
Essenin decided to take the first shot across the bows and reached over to run a finger across Zie’s knuckles. The skin was fireside warm and smooth. It made them wonder how old Zie was or rather, how young. The scars were odd ones, and not so old that they’d paled to white yet - three parallel lines on the back of each hand from wrists to knuckles. When Zie didn’t draw away, Essenin grew bolder and picked up that hand to kiss his fingers, first the backs, then the pads on the undersides.
“Careful,” Zie murmured. “Don’t press there. You’ll get claws.”
“Good to know.” Essenin offered a smile and flicked open the top three buttons on their shirt. Just a tease of skin for the moment. No rushing anyone. Just offering.
Zie took his hand back and completely ignored things like buttons to pull his shirt off over his head. The black pelt of chest hair was both shocking and beautiful against his frost-pale skin, while the hair on his forearms was less dense, but an equally sharp contrast. It only made Essenin more curious about the distribution of hair on the rest of him. They did have a definite weakness for furry males.
Unexpectedly, Davs cleared his throat from across the room. “Ess. Be fair.”
Ah, yes. Someone’s very interested. “Terrible of me,” Ess murmured as they made short work of buttons and flailed out of their shirt in record time. The hair on their own chest was sparse and downy, nothing like the forest on Zie’s or—a rush of heat climbed from Ess’s groin at the thought—Dav’s. The heat only increased as Zie prowled closer and reached a hand toward Essenin’s gill slits.
“Yes.” Essenin swallowed against a suddenly dry throat, the smolder in those purple eyes pinning them in place. “Gently.”
“Always gently.” Zie’s smile held sharp teeth, but that alone didn’t make it any fiercer to Essenin. His beloved grandmother’s teeth had been sharper.
The pads of Zie’s fingers were cushioned velvet, his touch the barest kiss. Essenin’s head fell back on a sighing moan, which tipped his gaze right at Davs standing stiff and trembling like a hunting courser straining at the leash. Essenin ran his eyes down Davs body. Something else is quite stiff already, too.
Knowing it would display every sleek muscle, Essenin stretched, arching their back, and locked their eyes with Davs honey amber ones, reaching a hand out to him. Open invitation, Davs didn’t have to accept, though Essenin couldn’t help a chuckle when he heaved an unsteady breath and crossed the room in two hurried strides to take Essenin’s hand.
Zie’s hands sliding down their chest distracted them from their campaign of Davitts seduction. Essenin hissed and squirmed as those lovely pads glided over their nipples, sliding down to hook fingers under the top of their kilt until Zie found and unfastened the kilt pins. Essenin nearly purred at the exquisite sensation of being unwrapped under the gaze of two such lovely men.
“Beautiful,” Zie whispered, running his hands up and down the outsides of Essenin’s now-naked thighs.
“They are, and they know it.” The hint of reverence in Davs’ voice sent a pool of warmth spreading around Essenin’s heart. Teasing, yes, but their Davs’ love shivered in those words.
The mattress depressed as Davs put a knee on it and bent to kiss Essenin, his lips starting out gentle and slow, but gaining heated urgency as Essenin began to drag Davs’ shirt up his back. They broke the kiss to pull the shirt off over his head, and Essenin sighed in appreciation as they ran their fingers through the thick brown thatch of Davs’ chest hair and reached out to pet the silky black of Zie’s.
“I feel so spoiled. All this wonderful fur.”
“You are spoiled. Brat.” Davs grinned as he planted a kiss on Essenin’s forehead.
Purple eyes devoured them both through all this, the trail of Zie’s gaze a near-physical heat. Their new sylvan friend had removed his belt and was in the process of unlacing his trousers as he watched, his hunger even more evident in the growing bulge behind the laces. And, oh, he was beautiful and heartbreaking all at once as he shimmied out of his tight trousers. Milk-pale skin peppered with dark hair, his compact frame made for sleek muscle, but he was far too thin, the bones in his wrists too prominent, his ribs too visible. A long scar trailed from his right hip to knee, perhaps the same age as or a little newer than the ones on his hands.
He needs rest and feeding and someone to look after him. And that’s you and Davs, is it? Essenin had to smile at his presumption. Zie probably didn’t want looking after, even if he seemed so terribly alone. Still, the thought had taken hold and was growing, that he shouldn’t be alone, no matter what his pride might say.
Davs smoothed their braids back, a tiny smile tugging at his mouth. “And you’re being selfish.”
“Wha—?” Essenin cut off the question before it could properly start, following Davs’ gaze and thoughts with ease. “Oh, of course. Zie is the guest. He should be the filling in our two-crust pie.”
“Filling.” Zie let out a snort that might have stood for a laugh. “What sort am I then? Sweet, savory or spiced?”
“Wellll…” Essenin pretended to think as he took Zie’s arm and pulled him down beside them. “We won’t really know until we’ve had a taste, will we? You could be all three.”
“Sensible.” Zie reached up to tangle his fingers in Davs’ hair and pulled him down for a lingering kiss.
Davs wrinkled his forehead as he pulled back. “That part’s sweet, anyway. But it’s just one part.”
“What would you like, lovely filling?” Essenin tipped Zie’s chin up and claimed a kiss of their own. Zie’s lips were full and soft, his tongue gently requesting rather than demanding.
“I’d like this one to fuck me.” He pointed a claw at Davs, then swung it to point it at Essenin. “While I devour you.” The mischievously heated expression faltered, Zie’s bottom lip caught between sharp teeth. “If that’s all right. I’m making assumptions, and I shouldn’t.”
A blush colored Davs’ cheeks, but he slid out of his own trousers and dug through his pockets until he produced a vial of oil. “More than all right with me. Ess?”
Essenin disentangled themself from Zie’s arms and scooted up to lean against the carved headboard. “Fancy being devoured by a filling. But I’m happy to give it a try.”
That wasn’t really a laugh either, though Zie’s eyes crinkled at the corners. Did he have a laugh? Essenin had the feeling it would be graceful and beautiful like the rest of him. Thoughts of laughs or the lack thereof flew out of their mind, though, when Zie urged their thighs apart and settled on his stomach between, his breath teasing at Essenin’s prick, the warmth of his mouth achingly close, the rumbling of his purring vibrating the mattress beneath Essenin’s naked ass.
The purrs broke off in a startled gasp when Davs seized Zie by the hips and yanked him up onto his knees. Davs didn’t go at it right away, though, rubbing Zie’s back in long, sure strokes.
“Been a while?”
Zie nodded against Essenin’s thigh. “Yes, but I won’t break.”
“I’d never even try to.”
He met Essenin’s gaze, a little smile curling his lips as he poured oil into his hand and stroked his cock, that thick, gorgeous cock. Essenin had to lick his lips and swallow hard to keep from drooling. Their eyes remained locked while Davs teased at the ass so willingly offered him, though he turned his attention to Zie when he started to ease inside. Zie’s head jerked up on a strangled huff when Davs thrust inside, but the huff rolled over into a purring moan and Zie buried his head in Essenin’s crotch, licking and sucking for all he was worth.
Essenin’s eyes crossed and they buried both hands in the wild mass of Zie’s black hair, pulling their knees up to give Zie a better angle, for deeper, closer, more. Zie moaned and squirmed as Davs thrust into him, a steady, hard rhythm now, Davs cheeks flushed and his eyes glassy. The sight only sent harder spears of pleasure into Essenin’s groin.
Just as Zie’s moans had turned into panting cries and Essenin was squirming desperately for release, Zie thrust a velvet-padded finger inside and Essenin thumped their head back against the headboard, hips thrusting as they cried out, climax crashing over them in heavy surges. Still fastened on tight, Zie let out a muffled howl, hips bucking against Davs’ tight hold, the extra thumping against Essenin sending aftershocks crashing through them.
Bent over Zie’s back, Davs eyes were squeezed shut, one of his hands wrapped tight around Zie’s cock. Zie let out one more strangled cry, followed a moment after by Davs bellow, then Essenin had a lapful of tangled lovers, all three of them panting and gasping.
There were some grunts and apologies, elbows and knees catching places they shouldn’t as Zie and Davs shifted and cleaned up. Essenin didn’t bother moving. Didn’t bother opening their eyes. They simply lay still and floated until their lovers came back to bed, Zie snuggled up against their side, Davs putting Zie between the two of them with one muscular arm thrown over top.
“Mmm. That was fast, dirty and exquisite,” Essenin murmured against Zie’s hair.
Zie mumbled something in response but his breathing indicated that he’d already fallen asleep. Davs pulled the covers up over all three of them, twined fingers with Essenin, and the two of them whispered over Zie’s head for another hour before they both drifted off as well, warm and sated.
Davitts pulled Essenin by the arm so they walked behind the cart on the way back. “What in blazing, thunderous weather were you thinking?”
“I didn’t say yes.” Essenin didn’t look at all contrite. They looked surprised that he was angry.
“The one thing you promised me about working together, Ess. The one thing.”
Ess dropped his voice to a stricken whisper, “I didn’t say yes.”
“You didn’t say it, but you...the way you…” Davitts ran down, his anger draining. He couldn’t really tell Ess he’d missed the hope in Zie’s eyes when they didn’t say no. It wasn’t something he could prove and it wasn’t even his business. “Just consult next time.”
“I’ll just let you speak for me, is that it?” Ess narrowed their eyes, braids clicking like an accusation as they swung to face Davitts.
“Like you did for me?”
Davitts might have huffed. Possibly. It was an old argument about Ess being impulsive and Davitts being too cautious, but he also knew he was more concerned than angry.
Something he couldn’t see yet was worrying at the back of his mind, something that tasted like danger and change.
Being a real seer would’ve been nice sometimes. He knew that the gift drove some humans mad, but he could’ve inherited something better from his taur ancestry than vague, ominous feelings.
Ess still frowned, but their shoulders slumped. “Right. Sorry. Consult first.”
“Would you want to…?”
“I’m not sure yet.” The frown smoothed, though puzzlement clouded those beautiful dark eyes. “Keeping our paths open for now seems best.”
“Fair. Not like it takes us long to pack for any job.”
By the time they’d gotten Bluey unharnessed and fed, and the cart put away—in the same condition as they’d found it that morning, thank you very much—Zie had vanished.
Aunt Lana nodded to the stairs from where she was setting a log on the fire. “He hobbled up to his room.” She straightened and stretched her back. “Why don’t you boys take lunch up?”
“Excellent suggestion!” Ess bounded to the kitchen before Davitts could open his mouth to agree, Aunt Lana watching them with that too-placid expression that meant she was trying not to laugh.
Davitts shot her a mock glare and followed Ess to make up a tray of the wonderfully rich smelling mushroom soup Aunt Lana had simmering over the fire and some of the new baked bread. He took the tray, Ess snagged a water pitcher and cups, and they made their way up to the second floor, one of them at a dignified pace. That person wasn’t Ess, their kilt flying and showing enticing glimpses of strong thighs as they bounded up the steps.
The room to the right overlooking the stableyard was one of the better ones—bigger bed, windows protected from cold winds—and this was where Aunt Lana had installed Zie. She really had felt bad for him, though it didn’t hurt that this was a slow season and the inn was nearly empty.
Zie sat cross-legged in a nest of blankets coming out his black hair. It shimmered, more iridescent with each stroke of the carved antler comb. Beautiful. Davitts blinked and forced himself to stop staring.
“Um, lunch. We brought...lunch,” he managed to force out through a closing throat.
“Kind of you.” Zie put down the comb, his voice dry as salt as he went on, “Though even the smell of that wonderful soup can’t cover the scent of why you really came upstairs.”
“I should’ve realized you can scent interest.” Ess flipped their braids over their shoulder with a cascading clatter of beads as he settled on the edge of the mattress. “I want to be clear, it’s just interest. If you’re not also interested right now, please say.”
Zie gave him a sideways glance, but he was smiling. “Lunch first, I think. Before it gets cold. Then we’ll see how active all of our other interests might be.”
“All...you’d want me to stay?” Davitts’ voice squeaked and he was certain his face would burst into flames.
“Yes.” Zie’s brows drew together, concern in his eyes. “I didn’t make that clear before? Both of you. As a set.”
Yes, he’d implied it, but Davitts hadn’t been certain. Most people tended to be interested in Ess, not that Ess had more than an occasional fling and never without both of them discussing it first. They had no secrets, but it was still unusual for them to share the same fling.
“I find you both…” Zie stared at his hands. He’d taken his gloves off and was flexing and retracting his claws. “Achingly attractive.”
Nothing coherent or clever was going to come out of his mouth, so Davitts said nothing and handed out food instead while Ess leaned in to stage whisper to Zie, “That’s how Davs flirts. Giving you food. Bringing you blankets. Stuff like that.”
Though Zie offered a smile in response, he scooted away from them to the far end of the bed as soon as he had his lunch, curled over it while he ate as if he feared someone would steal his food. It was a telling response, one that made Davitts heart ache. What little he knew about the sylvas could fill a teacup, but he did know they lived in close-knit clans. How long had Zie been alone?
Ess gave him space and didn’t rush through their own food. Good. They were being patient and weren’t pushing. Yet.
Finally, Zie set his bowl and cup aside on the bedside table, scrupulously picking the last remaining crumbs off his black wool shirt one by one. “Please reiterate to your aunt that her food is wonderful. I’ve told her so, but it bears repeating.”
“I’ll be sure to tell her.” Davitts couldn’t help a smile as he said it. Aunt Lana took great pride in her cooking. Her own children, her siblings’ children, all said she should have help, but she refused. Not in the kitchen. She didn’t trust anyone else to do things right.
Suddenly and not subtly, Zie’s body language shifted. He stretched, arms behind his head, shirt riding up enough to hint at the dark trail of hair on his stomach. The sweep of his lashes nearly covered his eyes as he let his gaze sweep over First Davitts, then Ess. “Are we still...interested?”
Ess looked over and Davitts gave a short nod since he couldn’t remember how words worked just then. With a bright grin, Ess crawled up the bed and sprawled on their side next to Zie. “Oh, yes. So very much interested.”
They make such a gorgeous picture together. And as soon as I figure out how my legs work, I’ll join them.
Essenin didn't need to see the expression under the broad-brimmed hat to understand that Zie had gone rigid. His fingers clutched the seat tight enough to leave dents in the leather cushion. They stopped the gossta with a hand on her harness and crouched beside the cart.
"Have you spotted someone you'd rather not?"
"I…" Zie shook his head, fingers twitching. "No. Nothing like that. I simply don't know…there are so many."
Davitts leaned on the other side of the cart. "Where do you want to go? Tissia Islands? Cau Senis? That'll help narrow it down."
"Across." Zie waved a hand at the harbor. "It doesn't matter so much where as long as it's across the sea."
That was disturbing. Essenin shot Davitts a look, but he just shrugged. They cleared their throat. "All right, we'll say Cau Senis, since that's all the way across. Captains are going to look a bit sideways at you if your destination's just away from here."
"We don't want them thinking you’re a fugitive criminal," Davitts added, leaving a clear and unambiguous opening for Zie to say, I'm not, or something of the sort.
Zie only nodded, murmuring, "Of course."
It had been a long time since Essenin had exchanged so many looks with Davitts in a single morning. Still, Davitts trotted off to the harbormaster's office to check on ships departing soon for Cau Senis, leaving Essenin to stand about awkwardly and try not to blurt out things like, so, just out of curiosity, what are you running from?
Instead Essenin sniffed at the chill in the wind whipping off the water. Snow soon. "Are you warm enough?"
"Yes, it's fine. I'm used to much colder." Zie tipped his hat back to meet Essenin's eyes, his expression weary to the bone. "If this is awkward for you… Maybe you have suspicions. Maybe you regret the offer. I won't hold you to your promises if this feels wrong to you."
The old cart gossta turned her head and honked loudly. Essenin couldn't help a laugh. "Bluey says don't be absurd and I agree. We promised we'd help you and keep you company. As long as you don't intend to hurt the people I love, I don't need to hear about where you've been or what's behind you."
Something in their words caused Zie to wince, but he covered it quickly. "Thank you. Though you may, at some point, reconsider." He might have followed that with a muttered and no one would blame you, but Essenin couldn't be certain.
They settled for a brief squeeze to Zie's shoulder and waved to Davitts as he came trotting back.
“The Golden Runner leaves for Cau Senis in two days.” Davitts pointed out into the harbor where the larger ships anchored. “That’s the soonest. You want to talk to the captain?”
Zie’s brow furrowed. “Do we have to row out to the ship?”
“No, no.” Essenin did their best not to laugh. They really did. “The officers come to shore when they’re in port.”
“Captain’s working out of The Hollow Anchor, harbormaster said.” Davitts pointed down the quay toward a section of inns and warehouses. “Said we could speak to her there.”
Davitts took hold of Bluey’s headstall and got her moving in the right direction, toward the inn with the crisply painted sign of an anchor made of glass. The Anchor was one of the better harborside inns, owned by one of Davitts’ second or third cousins—Essenin had difficulty keeping track of his sprawling family. The common room was well-kept, polished dark woods and brass, with wonderful scents of fresh-baked bread and roasting meat competing with the scents of kelver and liquor.
A quick exchange of hand signs between Davitts and the owner behind the bar had them seated at a table with cups and a pot of tea while Davitts’ cousin tromped up the stairs, probably to tell the captain she had company or petitioners or whatever one told a captain.
Typical. No words spoken. The family was mostly like that. For the Damils, Auntie Lana was positively chatty.
Essenin stretched their legs out under the table, settled their long knives more comfortably at their waist and leaned back to wait while Davitts glowered at the stairs and Zie sat perfectly, quiveringly still. A predatory stillness, maybe. More anticipatory than anxious.
Not five minutes later, the captain appeared at the top of the stairs wearing crisp gray trousers with mirror-shined boots and an equally crisp white shirt. Even without her captain’s coat, the way she held herself and scanned the room as if she could set everyone on fire with her eyes all screamed captain.
That, and Essenin recognized her. They’d worked for Captain Unav before, though they hadn’t heard she’d taken command of the Runner.
“Ah, you two.” Captain Unav adjusted her cuffs and strode down the steps. “At least this won’t be completely irresponsible nonsense.”
“No nonsense, Captain.” Davitts stood to offer her a polite bow. “We’ve brought you someone who needs passage and who may be helpful to you.”
“And congratulations on the new commission,” Essenin offered a smile as they poured everyone tea. “The last we saw you was in command of Wave Sprite.”
“A good little ship she was.” Captain Unav raised her teacup in acknowledgment and took the seat to Davitt’s left. “Went down in a late winter storm off the coast. Most of the crew were saved, but there was no saving her, my poor little Sprite. The company had the need to replace a retiring captain and I was available. So. What brings you to me toda—”
She cut off as Zie removed his hat, purple eyes meeting storm gray. In his soft, even voice, Zie said, “I hoped you might have need of a sail impeller.”
“How are you…” The captain shook her head, her long, white braid waving behind her. “No. No, that would be a rude and stupid question. You are here and not a revenant. Were you away from home when the disaster occurred?”
Zie’s gaze slid sideways, his gloved hands curling into fists. “I was at home. I outran the catastrophe.”
“Did you?” Captain Unav drummed her fingers on the table, her gaze speculative. Then she let out a huff. “As it happens, the Golden Runner does not have a sail impeller, and I’d prefer one going across. A calm of a few days will kill a ship out there as surely as a tempest. Is your goal to run farther, young sir?”
“That’s not really fair, Captain,” Davitts broke in before Zie could answer. “Do you ask all your sailors why they want to go to sea?”
Captain Unav let out a dark chuckle. “The ones who look like trouble, yes. But never mind. Davitts apparently vouches for you. Show me.”
“You claim you can control wind. Show me, without making a mess of the place, how fine your control of the wind is.”
The nervous tension running through Zie slowly bled out of him and he sagged back in his chair. Essenin wasn’t certain if he was that confident or if he was giving into despair.
Zie pulled off his gloves, flexed his fingers to unsheath and retract his claws, then raised both hands. A soft breeze riffled through Essenin’s braids, rattling his beads. The wind toyed with the carved wood and whalebone before moving on to Davitts to ruffle his finger-length, brown hair. After tugging at his collar, the breeze whipped around the table and nudged Captain Unav’s braid, first over her right shoulder, then over her left.
Her laugh this time was all delighted surprise and she held up a hand. “Enough. You’re very good. We sail morning after next with the early tide. You make your way out to the ship at least two hours before that. I don’t have men to spare to lower a launch and come fetch you. If you’re there, you’re hired.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Zie drew his gloves back on, though not before Essenin had a good glimpse at the scars on the backs of his hands.
“Excellent.” Captain Unav smacked the table with both palms as she rose. “If you boys want to come along, you’d be welcome. I’m always in need of a couple more swords.”
“We’ll consider it, Captain,” Essenin rushed to answer before Davitts could say no.
She took her leave and the three of them sat quietly sipping their tea after she’d gone back upstairs. Zie finally broke the silence.
“Why would a seafaring ship need fighters?”
“Pirates, mostly. Not that every voyage is plagued by pirates, of course.” Essenin considered a moment. “And sometimes things go wrong in a foreign port.”
“Ah.” Zie hissed in a breath, hunching in on himself. “Our river boats had...different issues. But you won’t accept her offer, will you?”
“Eh. It’s not like we have another job lined up right now.” Essenin shrugged, ignoring the glares from Davitts. Mostly ignoring. “We’ll talk about it.”
Davitts muttered something into his teacup that sounded like you’d best believe we will and Essenin blew him a kiss across the table.
They were both downstairs in the common room at breakfast, as promised. Reliable mercenaries. What was the world coming to? Zie wasn't certain what he'd been thinking accepting their offer, either.
He hadn't had any real contact with anyone—barring business transactions and theft—for so long. The tall, graceful one had called him lovely. The compact, beautifully muscled one had stared and stammered like a youngster on his first assignation. The attention, while initially alarming, had warmed abandoned places inside. A bit of comfort while he recovered? Maybe it was an indulgence, but he could afford it. He had time. A little. Even if nothing happened in the bedroom, being admired, touched, perhaps held—these things would shore up his reserves, keep his mind from sliding so quickly into the dark.
This is fine. A good thing. The first in a long while.
The half selak—Zie could see it now in the not-quite human ear shape, the faint opalescent sheen on dark skin when they turned in the light—was laughing with the innkeeper while their companion rolled his eyes. They both seemed quite familiar with her. Old friends, maybe. No. The mostly human one, Davitts, was a relation. They shared the same long nose and the same river clay hue to their skin.
He'd presumed Essenin and Davitts were lovers, and this morning confirmed it. The little touches between them, the way Essenin kissed Davitts' forehead to smooth away his frown. Deliciously tender. Zie allowed himself a moment to wonder whether they would prefer their liaisons with him together or separately. Either way would suit him.
That entire thought process amazed him. He hadn't… Well. He hadn't had the space in his head to think about it for some time. A good meal, a good bed, and safety finally within his grasp had improved his outlook enormously.
Essenin turned and spotted Zie making his careful way down the steps. "There you are!"
Before Zie could respond, Essenin had bounded up the remaining stairs, offered their arm to support him, and assisted him into a chair near the warmth of the kitchen.
"Auntie Lana, should I—?" Davitts hooked a thumb toward the doorway.
"Thank you, Davs, yes. Go fetch breakfast for all of us." She gave him a fond smile. Ah. Nephew. Perhaps favorite nephew. Her smile turned to envelop Zie. "How are you feeling this morning? You looked three steps from death last night."
From somewhere in his memories, Zie dredged up a charming smile. He hoped it was charming instead of ghastly. "I apologize for causing concern, madam. And yes, I feel much more alive today."
"Good. We'll rewrap your ankle before my young bravos drag you down to the docks."
Essenin claimed the chair on Zie's left. "Could we have the cart, Lana? So Zie won't need to walk."
She gave them an odd look. "You may. But return it the way you found it this time."
The smile dropped from Essenin's face. "That wasn't my fault."
"Debatable," Davitts muttered as he returned from the kitchen balancing a platter of bread and cut fruit on one arm, and an earthenware pot on the other.
The pot contained a grain porridge, well sweetened and spiced, that caused Zie's stomach to growl in hollow outrage, while the fruit was perfectly ripe, scarlet oarpods with some sear berries sprinkled about.
The bread was slathered with—oh wonders of earth—butter, something Zie hadn't tasted in several months.
His breakfast company remained soft-spoken, mainly engaged in eating. He couldn't complain about that. Small talk had become a foreign concept and he certainly didn't want to discuss anything important to him. These warm, wholesome people should be kept away from his problems. Probably away from him as well, but he'd botched that entirely.
The cart ended up being a small trap, only large enough for two small people or one Zie-sized person, pulled by an elderly town gossta no taller than Zie's shoulder and as blue as his coat. She fussed with her wings and pecked at Essenin while they got her in harness, but settled into contented honk mutters once all the buckling and adjusting were complete.
In what seemed an out of character moment, Essenin stood back, hands twisted together, while Davitts settled Zie onto the padded seat of the cart. Once accomplished, Davitts turned a pointed look on his lover and an even more pointed, "Well?"
Essenin cleared their throat. "I behaved badly last evening. I put my hands on you when you said no and didn't listen when you said stop. I'm truly, terribly sorry."
The polite fiction of it's fine, it's of no matter didn't feel right in the face of such earnest self-recrimination. "You won't do it again?"
"I won't." Hopeful and earnest. Difficult to resist.
"Then I accept your apology." Zie reached out to pat their arm. "Your intentions weren't toward harm. I forgive you."
A second sun rose in Essenin's smile and Zie didn't miss the fond and heated gaze Davitts settled on him. How much of the apology had been Essenin’s idea originally? Though perhaps he hadn’t needed much of a shove. They did fit well together. So well. Blossoming thoughts of seduction had to be set aside, though, when Davitts whistled to the gossta and jogged out of the courtyard. The cart jerked into motion and Zie had to concentrate on keeping his seat over the cobbled streets as the old cart bird hurried after the mercenary pair.
Not mercenaries. Guards. The thought was wryly amused, though more of Zie's attention focused on the two figures jogging in front of the cart and their wonderfully muscular backsides. He was so thoroughly distracted, he didn't notice that the streets had opened up until they had entered the harbor. Ships. So many ships. A forest of masts. Large and small, sleek and ponderous. Wonder turned to overwhelmed anxiety. How was he to find an appropriate one in such a dizzying crowd of vessels?
Davitts narrowed his eyes at the newcomer who'd charmed Aunt Lana into giving him the corner booth for dinner and bringing him a cushion to prop his foot up on the bench.
Leaned back against the wall, hiding their grin behind a sip of kelver, Essenin nudged him with their elbow. "You'll set your aunt's new guest on fire if you glare any harder."
"Not sure I like him," Davitts muttered, though he turned to his dinner, which did deserve his attention. Nothing was as good as Aunt Lana's marsh hare stew.
"Oh?" Essenin had dropped the grin, though their dark eyes danced with amusement. "What don't you like? How charming he is? How interesting? How very pretty?"
Davitts shoved at two of Essenin's many black braids so the beads clacked together. "Stop thinking with your nethers. He looks shabby, but paid up front for four days. No luggage. No pack, Auntie said. I think he's on the run."
"As long as he pays, how's that your business, Davs?"
"Don't want any trouble coming here, is all. And I'll keep an eye out for my family so long's I'm in town, thanks much."
"Fair." Essenin's gaze had hardened to something more considering. "Best that we make sure of him, then."
Davitts stared in horror as Essenin picked up their plate and mug, and meandered toward the stranger's table. "What? Ess, wait!"
He knew better than to think Ess would listen, of course. With a sigh, he gathered up his own dinner and followed, plunking himself down opposite while Essenin cozied up next to the stranger, who neither glanced up nor took off his hat.
"Pardon, but I didn't ask for company." The stranger's voice held the soft consonants of the northlands, polite, measured, but definitely not pleased.
"You didn't." Essenin nodded cheerfully. "But you looked like you needed it. I'm Essenin ky Soll na Reabis and my friend here is Davitts ky Antris na Damil, security for hire."
"Mercenaries," the stranger said, tone flat and even less pleased.
"Oh, not usually. We mostly take jobs as caravan guards and private bodyguards. That sort of thing." Essenin leaned closer, probably trying to see under the hat. "Now you're supposed to give us your name."
"Am I?" The stranger let out an exasperated sigh. "Fine. I'm Zie."
They both waited for the rest of the name. There had to be more. Essenin broke first. "Just Zie?"
"Yes. Now please go away."
Instead of leaving, Essenin pointed to the propped up, stocking foot. "You've injured yourself, have you? I'll have a look, if you don't mind? Pretty good with this sort of thing."
"I do mind." Zie's head came up far enough to show the horror in his purple eyes—huh, those were pretty—as Essenin strode around the table to the other side and began working off Zie's sock. "Don't…stop that! Let go! Leave that on!"
While it was amusing to watch Essenin steamroll someone who wasn't him, Davitts couldn't help a small internal cringe at how desperate Zie sounded. Frightened instead of annoyed. "Ess, maybe you shouldn't—"
But the sock was already off and Davitts found himself staring at the delicate, though rather swollen foot so suddenly revealed. There were no toenails. Not that they'd been ripped out or anything horrid. They just didn't exist. The bottom of the foot appeared to have pads, like a feline's would. Essenin let out a surprised hiss and released his grip, which allowed Zie to yank his leg away and hide his foot under the table.
"You're sylvas," Essenin said softly. "We'd heard something terrible happened up north. That you were all wiped out."
"Go away," Zie whispered with his eyes squeezed shut as if that might make them vanish.
Davitts blurted out, "Were there other survivors? What happened?"
"You don't have to tell us if you don't want to talk about it," Essenin hastened to add.
"There might be others." Zie shook his head slowly. "I couldn't say."
Essenin shared a stricken look with Davitts, both of them obviously at a loss.
"Now that I've answered all your burning and necessary questions, please give me my sock back and leave me alone."
Essenin had enough sense to look sheepish as they relinquished the sock, but they persisted. "You don't have to hide here, you know. No one cares that you're not human. Not like those bigots in those human towns inland." They pulled down their shirt collar to show their gill slits. "I'm half selak, myself. Davitts' granda was a taur. That's where he gets those big hands."
They accompanied that last bit with an eyebrow waggle and Davitts' face heated. "Ess. Not the time."
Zie heaved another little sigh, removed his hat, placed it carefully on the bench, and went back to his dinner, apparently bent on ignoring them if he couldn't get rid of them. His ears…Davitts hated to admit it, but they were adorable. Set just a bit higher than human ears, pointed at the top with little tufts of fuzz at the very tip, they twitched and turned in reaction to sound. He'd kept his gloves on, but Davitts surmised his hands also had no nails and more than likely had retractable claws instead.
In a silent show of solidarity or maybe just not wanting to frighten Zie off, Davitts started eating again. He felt terrible now for his suspicions, mistaking a tired refugee for a possible criminal. He hoped Essenin would get the hint.
They did not.
"That ankle looks painful. I could wrap it for you. You really should have it wrapped."
For the first time, Zie met Essenin's eyes, and though wariness and exhaustion were topmost, Davitts thought he saw something else. Relief, maybe. "All right. Thank you."
With a smile that looked a shade too triumphant, Essenin hurried off, probably to wheedle medical supplies out of Aunt Lana. They returned quickly with a damp cloth, soaked in teo root extract for the inflammation by the sharp smell, and a length of linen wrap. Gently, and no one knew better than Davitts how gentle their hands could be, Essenin laid the teo cloth on the worst of the bruising and wrapped Zie's ankle securely and efficiently.
In their line of work, they both certainly had practice enough with that sort of thing to do it well.
"How long are you here for?" Essenin asked as he placed Zie's foot back on the cushion and gave it a final pat.
Zie regarded his foot with a frown, then Essenin, and finally Davitts. "No more than four or five days. I need… I'd like to find a ship that will take me."
"I'm asking out of concern, but can you afford ship's passage?" Davitts inquired softly.
"Perhaps." Zie spun his fork in his gloved fingers. "But I can do wind work. I'd hoped someone would need a sail impeller."
"We can help you with that." Essenin patted his knee. "We know people at the harbor."
"Why—?" Zie stopped himself and shook his head. "What do you want for this?"
Davitts opened his mouth to say nothing, they would help someone who needed it without demands, but Essenin spoke before he could, with a bright smile. "Nothing but your company, lovely sir. As much of it as you're willing to give."
But Zie held up a hand and caught Davitts' gaze hard. He couldn't have looked away if he'd tried. "The offer applies to you both?"
The first noise out of Davitts' mouth was a rusty-hinge squeak. How did Essenin just proposition people so…so brazenly? "Ye… Yes?" He cleared his throat. "Yes."
"Done, then." Zie rapped the table three times. "But tonight, I'm going to finish my dinner and go back to sleep."
"And we'll meet you here for breakfast," Essenin suggested, though it didn't sound like a suggestion.
After Zie had limped upstairs to bed, Davitts dropped his head in his hands. "Ess, what in all screaming pits?"
"Oh, come on." They shoved Davitt's shoulder. "He needs help and it'll be interesting."
That was something Davitt couldn’t argue with, not at all.
(Author's note: Welcome to the inaugural episode of "Shadow Run", a serialized high fantasy story about... Well. You'll have to see. Short episodes update every Monday. Until we're done.)
Sunrise bled into the field of snow daisies, painting their petals scarlet, forcing the shadows to bow in submission. Normal, everyday morning shadows. With any luck, his pursuers would be more than two days behind him.
From his perch atop a jagged fencepost, Zie had an excellent view of the northern horizon where his way through the field was no more than a suggestion of passage by now. Not that it mattered how few plants he'd broken as he ran. The wind rose, biting and insistent, whipping his leather coat about his ankles in restless waves of deep blue. His favorite coat…
Lucky thing, that, since it's your only coat now.
Only boots, rather worse for wear. Only shirt. Only… He crouched atop the fencepost, squinting toward the south. How much farther now? What if he was entirely, stupidly wrong? And did it truly matter any longer? He was tired, so cursed exhausted.
The question really is, am I ready to die? Do I deserve to?
A spirit crow let out her laughing cry from three fence posts over and Zie took it as an answer. He was too much of a coward for the first answer to be yes, and too self-involved for the second. Craven panic and narcissism had gotten him this far, why stop now?
When he squinted, smoky haze was just visible in the distance—usually the sign of a sizeable human community. That would do for a few days if he was careful since his pursuers seemed confounded by human towns. A tiny spark of guilt twinged under his breastbone as he considered endangering an entire community, but he never stayed long enough for his hunters to overcome their wariness. The humans had been safe so far. Generally safe. Mostly safe.
He leaped down from the post and ran, his steps light and nearly silent, any sounds covered by the wind rustling through the fields. If he recalled his geography of the region correctly, there would be another river between him and the town.
His pursuers didn't like running water, either, which had been an unexpected blessing.
Yes, there. The shining ribbon of a river appeared as he crested the next hill. Ancient, meandering and wide, he nearly wept to see it. He raced down the slope with his coattails flying behind him, gathering the notion of weightlessness in his mind, the feeling of buoyancy like invisible wings. The toes of his boots just skimmed the current as he stepped out onto the water, never slowing his pace.
Hest had always laughed at him, telling him he didn't have to take it at a sprint. Fine for him, as he stood calmly in the middle of a waterway trying to convince Zie that he wouldn't sink if he slowed down. He never got the knack and running full out over wavelets and white water was more exhilarating, in any case, and Hest was dead--
No. Don't think about that now. Concentrate.
He nearly made it. The horrible images he'd been fighting to suppress caught up with him at the last few steps and he splashed into the shallows, soaking his boots and turning his left ankle on a stone. Cursing and hissing, he limped onto the bank and headed for a cart path up ahead.
"That's fine. It's fine."
He'd made it across and put another obstacle between him and the nightmares behind him. That was the important thing. Never mind that he couldn't run now even if he had to. The cart path became a gravel track which soon joined a smooth, graded road. He spotted the first cart ahead of him—a box wagon pulled by a single draft edlak plodding along with unending patience on half-moon hooves the size of Zie's head.
Now was the perfect time for caution. He pulled his hat lower to shade the non-human purple of his eyes and cover the tips of his ears. His gloves would have to stay on until he gauged the town's atmosphere and no one would see his feet. Come to think of it, he hoped his ankle wouldn't swell so much that he couldn't get the boot off that evening.
Another carter, with an open wagon of hay pulled by a team of placid gosstas, took pity on Zie and let him ride to the town's gate with the hay. Itchy, and the gosstas occasional honking made his ears ache, but better than trying to walk on an ankle that complained more bitterly with each step.
The town, apparently called Pellienport since it was built around the natural harbor where the Pellien River met the sea, bustled with more than human activity, to Zie's relief. No one like him, of course, but he wouldn't be such an oddity in a place where taurs and merfolk openly walked the streets.
A bit of discreet pickpocketing shored up his funds enough to afford food and lodging. Not his finest hour, perhaps, but not his worst, either. He only took from those who could obviously afford it and preferred to steal from people who were arrogant and unpleasant.
Keep telling yourself that makes it better. Go on.
Closer to the center of town, since staying at inns near the gate was always a bad idea, he found The Blue Goblet, a tidy establishment tucked between a hostelry and a potter's shop.
With the last of his energy, he negotiated with the landlady for a private room, dragged his bedraggled backside up the stairs, locked the door, dragged his boots off—the left was a struggle—and collapsed onto the bed for the first real sleep he'd had in weeks.
Angel writes (mostly) Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around queer heroes. Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware and full time inside her head, she has one husband, one son, two cats, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.